Head pecking is a common occurrence in turkey flocks and can be very frustrating to manage. There are several factors to consider when you first see head pecking in your flock.
I often receive calls every fall and spring regarding prominent head pecking in a flock. Lighting has a huge impact on how birds establish their “pecking order”. Turkeys are notoriously some of the worst head peckers due to this reason. Toms feel the need to establish that they are the biggest and best male around, and when in a large commercial setting, this does not settle well with the rest of the males.
One way to combat head pecking is to adjust your lighting schedules every fall and spring. Give more light by running longer in the fall and less light by running shorter in the spring. Alternatively, lights can also be dimmed to keep the pecking to a minimum. Sometimes high light intensity can point out the “flaws” in individual birds and can also encourage pecking. Sunlight entering the barn can sometimes cause issues
with pecking and piling. Be sure to monitor this natural light morning and afternoon if you are having pecking issues.
It is important to provide an adequate amount of space for each of your birds so they can properly access the correct amount of feed and water. Creating a void in any of these components encourages competition and can therefore result in head pecking. Every bird also needs the space to be able to demonstrate some of their natural behaviors like foraging, dust bathing and strutting (in turkeys).
Other items to practice are proper ventilation and limiting temperature swings. Raising poultry in the Midwest often involves challenges relating to weather, however, avoiding drastic temperature changes will keep birds happy and present less issues in the future.
Sometimes the presence of head pecking indicates underlying issues within the flock. Stronger, dominant birds naturally pick on weaker birds. If a bird has leg issues or looks different from the rest of the flock, this can encourage pecking. Also pecking can occur if there are different aged birds or growth is not uniform throughout the flock. On the management side, ensure water and feed equipment is low enough as equipment that is positioned too high creates a further gap of growth between the smaller and larger birds.
Carefully evaluate if head pecked birds have any leg issues or any other problems that would cause them to be picked on. Sometimes different colored feathers or other body deformities spark unwanted pecking. It is not uncommon to see head pecked birds with tibial dyscondroplasia (TD), Osteomyelitis, Reovirus, and Cellulitis amongst other issues.
Sometimes our birds are missing something from their diet, or there have been too many changes. This can result in pecking others. Deficiencies in protein, phosphorus or methionine causes birds to peck one another. Specifically, if you see birds eating feathers, they are most likely deficient in methionine.
Transitions to a new ration of feed could also spark pecking. Sometimes switching from a pelleted feed to crumbles or mash can help. Pay close attention to when you see the pecking start and see if it correlates to anything that has changed in the flock’s diet.
Talk to your nutritionist to determine if you need to collect a feed sample for analysis. In the meantime, a zinc methionine or salt can be supplemented through the water for a few days to limit some of the head pecking.
Other Proactive Measures
Although beak and snood treatments are a good preventive measure to head pecking, this does not stop birds from getting after each other.
Culling or removing head pecked birds can limit the amount of pecking that goes on. Birds learn to head peck from other birds, and it can spread like wildfire through a flock. Limiting the sight of blood or a pecked head can dramatically reduce the action from re-occurring. In the same way, removing any dead birds in a timely matter limits the amount of cannibalism that happens in a turkey flock.
Try enriching your flock’s environment. I have often seen a turkey pick up a piece of plastic and run about the barn while others chase it. Sometimes giving your flock something that encourages natural behavior deviates them from wailing on each other, although the behavior can still happen. Hanging pieces of rope for them to peck at, shiny objects, or providing grit can all serve as great distractions. Keep in mind to make sure these objects (besides grit) cannot be ingested.
Please give us a call if you are seeing an over-abundance of head pecking going on in your flock. At Sioux Nation Ag Center, we are here to trouble-shoot any issues you experience to ensure you have a happy, healthy flock.